Free Speech 101


Updated to add: PLEASE READ MY APOLOGY AND RETRACTION. Autism Speaks did not do this this time. Anything not pertaining to Zach’s t-shirt is still a concern, but the thing with Zach’s t-shirt is no longer a concern. Please read my retraction for more links on the topic.

Someone just asked me why it was that I could oppose the kind of censorship occurring in my last post, when I am involved with two different organizations (ANI and who both have rules about what can and cannot be posted in their forums, and will put people on moderation if they break those rules. And, presumably, because I have a blog in which I don’t allow certain kinds of comments to be posted either.

I will try to explain the difference as well as I can, in case anyone else is wondering the same thing.

Edited to add: But first, please read through the ad hominem fallacy, tu quoque. Even if I were really engaged in censorship, it would not make me inaccurate in pointing out someone else’s. But, I’m not.

Basically it works like this:

Censorship (or in some people’s view, the bad kind of censorship) is preventing someone from doing the equivalent of printing their own totally legal material on their own paper.

Whereas, what and ANI have as policies, is the equivalent of saying that you can’t print certain views on paper that we happen to own. You can’t do the equivalent of coming in and using our printing presses to just print whatever agenda you feel like, there are boundaries there. That’s totally fine.

I could decide to create a mailing list that had a rule that anyone whose name started with F could not post there, ever, and that everyone else could only post every other Tuesday. I could then put people on moderation if they tried to break those rules, or even remove them from the list. That would not be censorship — people whose names started with F could go and post somewhere else, and same with people who wanted to post on days other than alternate Tuesdays. I would not be preventing them from doing that.

What would be censorship is if I started such a list, and then went around trying to keep other people from breaking my rules on their own lists that I didn’t even own.

I would have no problem if the Autism Speaks message board moderated or banned perfectly legal posts that disagreed with the mission of the organization. They have every right to do that. It’s their message board, not mine. I would have no problem if I were moderated or thrown off of a mailing list dedicated to chelation of autistic people, because I clearly disagree with that procedure. People are routinely thrown off such lists and that’s just fine.

They’re not doing that.

If people printed up a batch of t-shirts saying “ doesn’t speak for me,” I wouldn’t try to do anything, I wouldn’t even really care. I certainly wouldn’t sue them for copyright infringement for saying the word “”.

If someone tried to disseminate the idea that was run by a bunch of child molesters, that would be defamatory, and that would not be okay. Defamation is not protected free speech.

If someone tried to sell a book with the writings from in it, without obtaining permission (and this has happened in at least one book that I came across completely by accident one day), that would be copyright infringement, and that would not be okay.

But a t-shirt saying “ doesn’t speak for me” or “Autism Speaks doesn’t speak for me” is well within protected free speech, at least in the United States, where both and Autism Speaks are based.

Now, if someone tries to come to, say, ANI-L, with the express purpose of trying to talk everyone into believing that it’s horrible not to want a cure, then they will probably eventually get themselves banned.

If someone tries to come onto my blog and violate my comment policy (say, telling people here we’re not autistic enough to understand the needs of real autistic people), then their comments will be moderated, and if it happens consistently enough with them not providing much if any useful content beyond that, I might chuck their name into my spam filter and forget about them. (I so far have not had to do this very often, most people are more respectful than that.)

But people are totally able to go off and make their own mailing lists or blogs with the totally opposite set of rules. Free speech means that you can go make a mailing list or blog dedicated entirely to wanting a cure, and throw off anyone who argues against it because it gets in the way of your goal of finding or funding a cure.

Free speech means that you can go off and form a mailing list entirely full of people that you believe are “autistic enough” to comment about autism, and moderate comments from anyone you don’t think is autistic enough.

Free speech doesn’t mean that you have every right to, no matter what your viewpoint is and what organization it is, come onto someone else’s forum, or use someone else’s printing press, to disseminate your own viewpoint.

So there’s no actual contradiction here: Autism Speaks is attempting to interfere with other people’s totally legal and protected free speech. They are not just restricting what can be said on their own forum (which is their right, whether they choose to do so or not), they are attempting to restrict totally legal (non-copyright-infringing, non-defamatory) content that people print on their own t-shirts and websites, just because it expresses dislike of their organization.

And that’s all the difference in the world.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

14 responses »

  1. Then if the activities that these people are doing are protected by free speech as you say, then they should have no problem redressing their greivances in a court of law and autism speaks would not be able to prevent them from doing these activities. This certainly does not seem to be the case as the parody of autistic speaks was forced to close down. The person was a minor who did not even have the permission of their parents (legally required) to have this webpage and apparently did not even want their parents to know about it. If the people with the websites, T-shirts etc. do have a legal right to do these things they should have no problem contesting it in a court of law. If Kathleen Seidel can get an attorney to work for her probono to get the subpoena quashed then the people who object to autismspeaks objecting to violation of their trademark and copyright infringement should have no problem redressing this, or, Amanda, maybe it is that autismspeaks does indeed have the legal position here and people are liable for doing these things. It seems to me if autismspeaks really wanted to suppress free speech they could sue autism bitch from hell and other people who make the libelous statements that they are eradicating people and committing genocide.

    In the days of CAN which merged with autism speaks. you and Laura could have been sued for libel for your nasty abortion cartoon.

  2. Okay, looks like you have a few assumptions that need checking here:

    1. The “neurodiversity movement” is not some kind of monolithic movement, where everyone has access to everything that everyone else has. Kathleen’s access to a lawyer doesn’t give Zach access to a lawyer, and doesn’t give anyone else who happens to agree with her on something access to a lawyer. I mean what is it you think, that if one person has a viewpoint, and has a lawyer, then everyone else, the moment they speak a similar viewpoint, has a lawyer materialize in their backyard? It makes no sense.

    2. Having access to a lawyer doesn’t make what is done to you okay. That is like saying that if I were to walk up and try to punch someone in the face, but they were strong enough to block my punch, then it was okay for me to punch them.

    3. Having a legal right to do something doesn’t mean that you are capable of defending your rights with a lawyer. As they say, the difference between theory and practice is that in theory there is no difference between theory and practice.

    4. If I were to run out and punch two people in the face because they disagreed with me, and refrain from punching a hundred other people for disagreeing with me, that would not make it okay for me to punch those two people in the face for disagreeing with me. Just because Autism Speaks has only tried to censor two people that we know of, doesn’t mean that it’s somehow okay in those two instances.

    5. As I’ve told you many times, that cartoon predates my involvement in running, it has nothing to do with me.

    6. Stating that you think an organization’s views will lead to eugenic abortion, is not libel. Especially since eugenic abortion is, regrettably, perfectly legal and happens all the time when a gene and prenatal test are developed for other conditions such as Down’s syndrome or even albinism. And when prominent figures in genetic research have said that their goal is to find a prenatal test to aid in autism prevention, it’s not hard to see where that research is often headed.

    If you made a little cartoon about, where you tried to show that our viewpoints would lead to autistic people sitting there banging their heads on walls and being unable to communicate, that would be totally fine, totally legal, totally non-libelous. We’d object to the premise but not to your right to say it.

    It’s not libel to say you think someone’s views lead somewhere. If you were to claim we’re frauds, that’d be libelous, if you were to claim our viewpoints lead to horrible things, that’s not libelous at all.

    People say to us all the time that our views will lead horrible places and to horrible things happening, to all kinds of suffering and pain and bad things in general. And we obviously haven’t accused anyone of libel for saying that our viewpoints lead to suffering. We don’t happen to agree, we’ll write things explaining why we don’t agree, but we’d never accuse someone of libel simply for arguing with our viewpoints.

    7. Most of your “logic” seems predicated on “would” statements and faulty “if-then” statements.

    “This would happen.”

    “If this is true, then surely that would happen.”

    These statements don’t allow at all for the reality of life which is that it is far more complex and unpredictable than you are trying to make it.

    Again, it seems as if you are constructing your viewpoints, not to be logical or accurate or anything, but rather to show that anyone involved with what you call neurodiversity, is wrong, no matter what they’re doing.

    And when we aren’t actually doing things, you’re saying we would do them, even though there’s absolutely no evidence of that.

    You’re also substituting one person for another a lot — if one person did something, then surely everyone else with a remotely similar viewpoint would respond in exactly the same way.

    You’ve at times been doing the equivalent of saying, “If Dave Seidel does something then Amanda Baggs has to answer for it because she shares some views in common with him.” It doesn’t work like that. How would you like to answer for something someone else did, just because they didn’t like the neurodiversity movement and neither did you?

  3. Amanda, one thing I am curious about is do you believe that CAN and AGRE Autism speaks etc. have ever done genetic research with the deliberate intent of aborting autistic fetuses? That seems to me what that cartoon is implying. Some neurodiversity advocates have stated to me in person that this is the case, these organizations are deliberately trying to abort autistic fetuses, do you believe this? I also remember that some people in the usenet group posted this also. I thought that one of these people was you but I would not swear to it, i could be wrong about that, so i am rather curious as to what your beliefs on this are.

    Have you read the autism bitch from hell’s post on this about how neurodiversity is going to fight back and autism speaks will not be able to engage in these legal activities. She does not seem to agree with you. If autism speaks cannot legally stop people from doing these things and the people who are involved with neurodiversity, no not some monolithic organization but people involved in neurodiversity can’t do anything about it, then how can the autism acceptance project,, ANI, GRASP, aspies for freedom ASAN and the other organizations have any credibility at all? How can they tell people, yes, we can get people to accept autism, yes we can make a difference. I don’t know if you are correct or not about autism speaks not having the legal position but it would seem that if people are truly impotent to stop them, then the credibility of all of these autism self-advocacy organizations should be zero.

    I notice you joined and are very close friends on some sort of basis with Laura in spite of the nasty abortion cartoon. Therefore, I believe that you do approve of it. I have met both Jon Seshtack and Portia Iverson. They are kidn dedicated people who just want a better life for their son. They certainly have no intention of trying to find ways to abort autistic fetuses. They want to find a way to prevent the mutations that would make someone autistic. Yes, I believe that cartoon is libelous legally. Assuming that it isn’t then if autism speaks apparently can bully people about, then you should be thankful that no action was taken against for their cartoon.

    Also, you seem to imply that autistic speaks wants to stifle all freedom of expression not just those two incidents, but I still say you should not be saying that if you are going to engage in censorship the way and ANI does

  4. Re: free speech

    The way I’ve always explained it is that freedom of speech doesn’t grant you a specific forum. Sometimes you’ve got to find (or make) your own platform.

    And I take it that Mr. Jonathan (above) has quite an agenda – otherwise his statements make no sense. Well, they make no sense anyway, but at least an agenda would provide a motive.

  5. It seems to me if autismspeaks really wanted to suppress free speech they could sue autism bitch from hell and other people who make the libelous statements that they are eradicating people and committing genocide.

    In the US, to prove libel you have to show there has been “reckless disregard for the truth.” In the situations you describe, Jon, people are obviously speculating about plausible scenarios at some future time. It’s not libel by a long shot.

  6. Miss B., I don’t think any rational person of generally good will (i.e., not a Mean Person Who Sucks) who understands the fundamental laws and traditions of our polity, and subscribes to them, could possibly disagree with you.

    However, there is a big load of qualifiers in what I wrote, just above.

    I do fear that there is a large number of people in this country disqualified for polite discourse by those qualifiers, and what’s worse, they vote.

    I use that as one of my excuses for drinking too much alcohol. Snerk.

    “I want to be _numb_ when they come for me, _numb_, I tell you!” – a quotation of myself

  7. Jonathan, if knowing someone and thinking they were a good and loving and caring person who only wanted the best meant they did everything right, then how can you criticize Laura for making that cartoon? After all, she is a good and loving and caring person who only wants the best for autistic people.

    That’s why she doesn’t want to see autistic people aborted on the basis of a genetic test developed by an organization that may or may not be well-meaning (probably a combination of well-meaning and a lot of other things, since organizations never have just one viewpoint within them).

    Can you at least see the perspective for a moment, of someone who knows the history of prenatal genetic testing, and then finds out that people are seeking to find the genes to prevent autism. Finding the genes to prevent something, so far, means finding the genes and then either failing to implant embryos with those genes, or aborting people with those genes. It’s not a hard leap of logic to make to see that these things are intertwined.

    Can you possibly understand that just because someone does something you think is very wrong, doesn’t mean they’re full of hate, the way you continually portray her and apparently anyone who associates with her? If you’re asking me to understand the intentions behind genetic research, then you have understand the intentions behind a cartoon that you apparently find unspeakably vile.

    I agree that it’s speaking about an unspeakably vile potential reality, but it’s not the cartoonist who dreamed up that reality. That’s like accusing a political cartoonist of hate for drawing something showing the devastation of a potential war that a politician is calling for.

    Yes, I happen to agree with the person who made it, that that is the most likely form of autism prevention, and there are many precedents for that. But even if I hated what she drew, I (a) wouldn’t take it off the site, and (b) wouldn’t stop being her friend because of all those other good qualities she has.

    But I want you to at least try to understand how love could motivate someone to draw something like that, to expose an atrocity waiting to happen.

    The person who drew that was not advocating hate, and she wasn’t advocating the scenario in the picture. She was saying, “I think this is where we’re headed, and I don’t like it.” She wasn’t advocating hate towards the people who want genetic research, that’s not how she operates. She was trying to explain what disability-based hatred would do with that research.

    If you view only people’s intentions as important, then what she did is fine, and what Portia Iverson does is fine too, because both of them have good intentions.

    If you view the consequences of Laura’s love and good intentions as bad, then you have to see that it was about the consequences of Portia Iverson’s organization’s good intentions could be bad too, bad enough to write a cartoon about.

    Let’s see… also, there’s two other people at right now. Have you ever gone and bugged Phil Schwarz or Joel Smith about that cartoon or do you have particular animosity towards me about it? Can you possibly do an exercise where you think of me without thinking and talking incessantly about one cartoon that you’ve managed to grossly misinterpret?

    Do you realize that all four of us write things the others disagree with, and print things on that none of us fully agree with?

    Additionally, comment moderation is just not censorship, it’s been explained to you several times why it’s not censorship, in very clear ways.

    The rest of what you’re saying basically boils down to “might makes right” — an organization’s views are meaningless unless it has a certain degree of political power. I don’t agree with the premise of that.

    There may be an organization run by five people living in poverty with no Internet access who have better views on autism than you, me, Autism Speaks, and whoever else. They might never be able to hire a lawyer or disseminate their views. But their views might be more right than anyone’s.

    Views stand and fall on their own merit, but just because they’re right doesn’t mean the people who have them are organized enough in a whole lot of ways, to solve every problem related to them yet.

    There’s so much all-or-nothing, and ad hominem, in what you have written, that at this point I’m not going to respond any further. But think about what I said — really think about it, don’t just scoff and say “It’s hate because I say it’s hate.”

    We were just talking on a board about how when you don’t like someone, your views of their faults are magnified (to the point of seeing fault where there is none), and if you like someone, you’re willing to overlook a lot. I think that’s what’s happening to you right now, which is why I’m saying, take a step back and think, rather than accusing everyone right and left of all kinds of things that aren’t going on.

    I mean… look at what it’s doing to you. You’ve recently put a “…but…” sort of qualifier on a post you wrote about people who want me murdered, because you didn’t like a cartoon I didn’t even write. For someone to put even the slightest “…but…” qualifier on premeditated murder in any circumstance is pretty appalling. To put that “…but…” in because of something as small as a political cartoon shows a perspective that has to be pretty warped by something. Please take a step back and look at what you’re doing and why you’re really doing it.

  8. Also wanted to say… I hope that you’re able to be friends with people who disagree with you on things you find important to you.

    I have been either friends, or friendly, with people who:

    1. Believe in curing autism, either sometimes or all of the time.

    2. Believe that being gay is morally wrong, or against God’s rules for the world.

    3. Don’t believe autism exists at all.

    4. Sincerely believe that the psychiatric system does more good than wrong.

    5. Really believe in eugenic abortion of people like me, and believe that it’s for the greater good.

    6. Believe that some kinds of human beings aren’t really people.

    7. Believe in euthanasia (either as a matter of course for everyone, or specifically for certain kinds of people).

    8. Have very different theological beliefs from mine, in many directions.

    9. Are very different from me on political matters. (Whether more conservative, more liberal, more libertarian, whatever.)

    10. Hold viewpoints that are very elitist (sometimes with me having the traits at the top of their hierarchy, sometimes with me having traits at the bottom, sometimes in between).

    11. Support organizations like CAN/Autism Speaks.

    12. Go to DAN! doctors and/or believe in things like chelation, special diets, etc., as treatments for autism (stuff I consider mostly quackery).

    And knowing people with that wide variety of beliefs has only made things more interesting, not less. It also makes it clear that there are so many viewpoints out there that I’m probably wrong about a lot, and right about a lot, and may never figure out which is which. It encourages a fairly healthy questioning of what I believe in personally, whether I change my mind in the end or not.

    Some of the things I listed are highly important to me, some of the views I listed are very offensive to me, some of the things I listed are more important to the other person than to me.

    And these friendships don’t allow certain kinds of stagnation or rigidity in my thinking. They allow me to learn and grow and change my mind.

    And if I restricted my friends only to those who had my belief system, then I would lose not only all those things, but companionship with a lot of people who are nice, funny, interesting, and all kinds of other things.

    You’ve seemed to imply that if my friend did something really offensive, I should get away from them, not talk to them, not work with them, etc.

    If a friend really offended me, I’d tell them, but it’d take something more than personal offense to break off a friendship entirely.

    In fact, it’d take so much that even really causing me harm isn’t always enough to do it. It depends on the degree of harm, the attitude of the person doing it, the likelihood harm would continue, and a whole lot of other factors. I do have limits — I’m not a doormat and I don’t simply allow myself to be abused — but they’re not where people might imagine they’d be.

    And I think that’s a good thing.

    Which is why I hope it’s true for you as well.

    By the way, I don’t even agree with all of my own writing on The reason I’ve left it published is because I’ve thought it still might be useful to someone, even if I thought differently about things now.

    So it would be good not to make predictions based on what you think a person would do in a certain situation where something a friend did offended them. (Mind you, that particular thing didn’t offend me, but I think I understand the intent behind it more than you do.)

    And if you’re not able to be friends with people like me, you might want to give it a try. You might find that we’re just as human as you, and Portia, and other people who want autism cured — just as flawed and just as good. You might find that our intentions and motivations run the same range of good to bad as any other group of people. You might find that we grow and change over time like anyone else. You mind find that we’re not the hateful NT-bashing bigots you think we are.

    As I said in responses to my last post — it’s really important not to let personal grudges get in the way during things like this. I’d also add that it’s a lot more comfortable not to run around with those grudges grumbling in your head all the time — and that you’re more effective at whatever you’re trying to do, without your judgment being as clouded.

    And please understand, I’m not saying all this from the point of view of someone on the outside of these experiences. Dealing with these internal prejudices is something that’s never over for anyone, and I’m not above making all the mistakes I’ve described and more. Lashing out personally at people rather than discussing issues is something I’m fairly familiar with.

    Doing all this doesn’t mean agreeing with everyone, or agreeing with the people you currently disagree with. But I really think if you got to know us without judging us as harshly as you sometimes do, you’d find we’re not the hateful people you think we are. And you’d view our viewpoints and motivations differently, even if you never agreed with the viewpoints themselves.

  9. The question of what is or is not censorship should take into account the opportunities for expressing opinion and the power structures in different societies.

    There is a fundamental difference beween people moderating comments on their own blog or on an Internet message board, or owners of newspapers or broadcasters not allowing comments in their newspapers or on their television or radio stations, in societies where a multiplicity of views are able to be expressed freely; and societies in which a particular point of view is not allowed to be expressed, or has very limited outlet for expression. Such as opposition to the Communist party in the former Soviet Union, and the great difficulty anyone advocating Communism would have had in getting their opinions published in the United States in the 1950s, and certainly not in the major news media.

    If in democratic societies one person, or a small number of people with the same opinions, have a near monopoly of all the news media, and prevent opinions with which they disagree from being published, that would be censorship.

  10. That is true.

    And it is very much easier for a person who does not like autism at all, to get their opinion out there, because it’s the dominant viewpoint.

    While people involved in views that can be categorized as “neurodiversity” have gotten a bit of media coverage lately, it’s still not even close to being the dominant viewpoint out there. (Even though it is the case that some people who feel threatened by it can act like we’ve taken over the media just by having a few stories on us out there.)

  11. Jonathan,
    you seem to have misunderstood the situation with Zach and Autism Speaks. They have a corporate image which they seek to defend by threatening legal action against anyone who uses the name Autism Speaks. Zazzle are a commercial venture who were given the choice between taking down Zach’s t shirts or facing a potentially costly legal action. They took a commercial decision to comply. Even with all the lawyers in the world Zach is not going to persuade them to change their minds.

    Zach has the legal right to sell his T shirts. That is unaltered by the actions of autism Speaks. He does not have the right to compel Zazzle to market them for him.

  12. If there were to be a boycott of Zazzle, that might affect their decision.

    However, the bullying attitude of Autism Speaks is the main issue.

  13. Amanda,

    I never commented, but I do read your blog occasionally. I just want to let you know that I admire the clarity and logical soundness of your arguments. It’s evident that you put a tremendous effort into them, and into trying to actually convince people, rather than merely persuading them. I find that refreshing and inspiring.
    (Oh, and I wish I had that kind of patience that you exhibit in explaining your reasoning over and over, and questioning opposing viewpoints in such a polite manner time and again!)

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